what is leaf mold?

What is Leaf Mold (And How to Make It)

Have you heard about the amazing soil amendment called leaf mold? Do you know what leaf mold is? While the name “leaf mold” may sound like something you would want to avoid, this is actually an incredible soil amendment, and you likely have the fixings for it lying around your property every fall. Let’s dive into what leaf mold is and why you should add it to your garden.


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I really don’t like the term leaf mold—generally when someone talks about leaves and mold, they’re thinking about plant diseases like powdery mildew.

A much better term would be leaf compost.

If you’re wondering what leaf mold is, it really is just that—composted leaves. When you pile up fall leaves and let them sit for at least 1 year, fungi will break the leaves down into leaf mold.

Keep reading to learn all about the benefits of leaf mold and how to make it. But leaf mold is only one of several great uses for fall leaves. Make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about ways to use fall leaves on your property.

Comparing Leaf Mold to Traditional Compost

Before we dive into the benefits of leaf mold, let’s go over the differences between leaf mold and traditional compost.

Traditional compost involves creating a large pile made up of nitrogen-rich material (greens) and carbon-rich material (browns). You’ll typically aim for a ratio of 30:1 – 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.

This pile will break down through a bacterial-dominated system that will get hot (130°-150° F). After the pile has been rotated a couple times, the result will be a dark and rich compost in as little as 18 days.

Leaf mold works in a different way.

Leaf mold starts with a pile of fall leaves—and only fall leaves. Then you leave it to sit for 1 to 3 years—yup, this method takes time!

The leaves will break down mostly through the action of fungi as opposed to bacteria, resulting in very little temperature increase.

The resulting leaf mold is low in nutrients—it’s mostly carbon plus minerals. This makes leaf mold a fantastic soil amendment, but not a fertilizer.

Leaf mold is much easier to make then regular compost, as long you can wait for it. But the benefits make it well worth the wait.

Benefits of Leaf Mold

Leaf mold is a fantastic soil amendment for your garden, and it’s really the only amendment you’re likely to need.

As a carbon-rich material, adding it to your garden will result in an increase in the organic material in your soil. This quality alone brings several fantastic benefits to your garden.

It increases the water holding capacity of your soil, improves the soil structure, and it feeds and supports the soil life.

Increasing your soil’s water holding capacity and structure will greatly reduce the amount of watering you need to do. This is because the more organic material in your soil, the more water your soil can hold. Also, the improved soil structure will make it easier for your plant roots to go deep to find water and nutrients.

Leaf mold also helps to feed the soil life, which in turn supports your plants.

Worms will love the leaf mold. They will happily till it into the soil for you and eat it up, resulting in rich worm castings that your plants will love.

The leaf mold will also support beneficial fungi and other beneficial soil critters like centipedes and predatory beetles. While you may not like centipedes, they are actually fantastic predators, which will help keep your garden pests under control.

But leaf mold has a couple other fantastic benefits for your garden. Leaf mold easily rivals rock dust as a source of minerals for your garden, as shown in the video at the start of this section. This will help your plants grow and ensure that the food you harvest is nutritious for your family and community.

Leaf mold also works as a great mulch for your garden soil. It will suppress weeds and help keep your soil nice and moist.

Plus, leaf mold is very easy to make!


Leaf mold provides a number of fantastic benefits for your garden:

  1. Increases the water holding capacity of the soil.
  2. Improves soil structure.
  3. Feeds and supports soil life.
  4. Provides necessary minerals for your garden.
  5. Works as a fantastic mulch for your garden.

How to Make Leaf Mold

leaf mold is easy to make

I let my leaves sit for a good year before harvesting the leaf mold. If I waited for 2-3 years, the resulting leaf mold would be finer and more broken down. But this short cycle works for my garden, and the coarser material is a great mulch!

Making leaf mold is very simple. At its most basic, all you need to do is gather up a pile of fall leaves that is approximately 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep (or 1 m tall, 1 m wide, and 1 m deep).

To make this easier, you can make bins out of pallets. Just take 4 untreated wooden pallets and make a box out of them.

You can also use chicken wire or any other material that will let air and water move through.

Now, just add your fall leaves to the bins until they’re full. It really is no more complicated than that.

If you do this each year, you can start a cycle where you’re harvesting 1 set of bins each fall at the same time you’re collecting more leaves to start the process over.

Wild Tip:

Shredding your leaves will speed up the process, but it’s not necessary. I don’t worry about shredding my leaves, and the result is a coarser leaf mold with some leaves matting together. But these are easily broken apart as you harvest and spread the leaf mold on your garden beds.

You will need to wait at least a year to harvest your leaf mold—which is the main downside to this method. But if you put your bins in a shady, out-of-the-way area of your yard, you can just forget about them until you’re ready to harvest the leaf mold.

When harvesting your leaf mold, the outside edges of the pile will likely still have leaves that have not decomposed. You can easily mix these leaves in with the leaf mold and use them together, or just leave the leaves in the bin for the next cycle.

Turning your piles a couple times each year could help minimize this issue, but it doesn’t seem worth it to me.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the advantages of leaf mold is that you don’t have to turn it.

Once you harvest your leaf mold, you can apply it to the surface of your garden as a mulch. Earthworms and other soil life will do the tilling for you and incorporate the leaf mold to your soil.

I like to add leaf mold to my garden in the fall so that it can continue to break down over the fall and winter and protect the soil from the heavy rains that are common in my area.

Wild Tip:

When sowing your seeds or planting your starts in spring, make sure to move the leaf mold aside first. Always plant and sow seeds directly into the soil.

Don’t Waste Your Fall Leaves

So what is leaf mold? It really is just leaves that have decomposed through the action of fungi. When you make leaf mold, you are mimicking what happens under trees in the forest each fall when the leaves fall to the ground.

But by putting the leaves in a pile, you are concentrating the leaves, making it easier for the fungi to break it all down, turning it into a fantastic soil amendment.

Leaf mold is a fantastic use of your fall leaves. But if you have extra leaves after filling your bins, don’t waste them! As the above video shows, fall leaves make for fantastic mulch even when used fresh.

I’m always collecting fall leaves and applying them to my growing areas. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest ways to supercharge my property.

Do you use leaf mold on your property? Leave a comment to share how it's worked for you!

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

  • Diane Kistner says:

    Daron, I’m one of those little old ladies who has trouble doing a lot of work outside. I’m just wondering: Is it possible to just drive around and pick up the leaves people have put out in brown paper bags and stack them up in a corner of the yard (i.e., not dump them out into a big pile)? If I had a corner of the yard with bags stacked, would they still eventually make leaf mold? Maybe stab holes into the bags and stick a little wood chip mycelium into the center?

    • Daron says:

      The brown bags would work fine but the bags would breakdown by the time you were ready to collect the leaf mold. I had some leaves in those bags that I got from a neighbor and they fell apart in just a few months sitting around. Plastic bags might not get enough air flow so I would not recommend keeping the leaves in those long term. Plus the plastic ones can breakdown from the sun’s UV rays overtime and turn into a mess.

      You can also apply the leaves fresh as mulch around your plants. Shredded leaves might be a better option for you but it depends on if you are applying leaves around young vegetable seedlings versus established perennials.

      One thing I’m considering is creating some bigger but shorter bins for my leaves and growing potatoes in those bins. These bins would be 6-10 feet long, 3 feet wide, and around 1-2 feet deep. The bottom of the bin would be open on the soil and I would likely add some compost or topsoil to help things get started. I would plant the potatoes in that and then cover them with fresh fall leaves. I would add more leaves overtime as the potatoes grew.

      Harvesting the potatoes should be relatively easy and the leaves would start to break down into leaf mold that you could then use in other areas. But I’m not sure if this would be easier for you or not…

      I hope that gives you some ideas.

  • jimmy says:

    I have always wanted to print up a letter to give out about not burning leaves around here a lot of people do such a waste

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